by Luke Bishop
IT’S such an odd juxtaposition that it might almost seem like the work of the divine. On the day after Christopher Hitchens, one of Britain’s most vociferous proponents of societal secularisation, died, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the UK as a “Christian country” and defended Christianity as instituting “a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today”.
He said this at a ceremony commemorating the 400th anniversary of the production of the King James’ Bible, a book which has undoubtedly had a profound impact on British cultural history. It is also a book which contains many statements which are undeniable in their moral simplicity and which any good member of society would agree with – Thou shalt not kill, Love thy neighbour and the golden rule of Do unto others.
All of these are fine sentiments. So why do I disagree with what Cameron says about Christianity being able to bridge the moral chasm which many believe has prized apart modern Britain? Because, if you will excuse a little blasphemy, the devil is in the detail.
Morality is universal, religion is divisive. The examples given above are the type of moral statements people of any faith (or lack thereof) could and should abide by. But why should we have to take on a whole and expansive set of creeds for these to be relevant? Do we really need to believe that a wise man who lived 2,000 years ago was really the son of God and saviour of mankind in order to take on board such moral truths and try and enact them in our lives?
The major divisions between and within religion has always been a matter of detail and its interpretation. Thou shalt not kill is as unequivocal as it gets. Yet Europeans were willing to burn each other to death throughout the 16th and 17th centuries over the question of whether it was our faith in God or our good acts in life that was the major contributor towards the salvation of our souls.
Even differences between Christianity and the other two monotheistic religions could be considered just a matter of interpretation over who our saviour is and whether they have arrived yet. Yet I’m sure most clerics from all three faiths would, at heart, agree on the basic moral principles common to each.
If Christopher Hitchens had lived a little longer I’m sure he’d have reacted to Cameron’s speech with a mixture of disgust, amusement and giddy joy as he composed a stinging riposte to one of the most direct declarations of religious faith from a British Prime Minister in a decade. In a country where Tony Blair could only really ‘come out’ as a committed Christian after he had left office, David Cameron has burdened himself with the cross early into his term.
While Hitchens may have poured scorn on Cameron it is more a cause for concern than anger. By so clearly linking morality to religious belief the Prime Minister suggests that there can be no alternatives, that secularism and the faithless society it has created is bound to be morally deficient because it has nothing to strive for, no higher power to answer to.
Certainly, nihilistic thought and behaviour can be a consequence of lack of faith but, then again, in the humanist ideal faith in the divine is replaced with faith in humanity, the belief that we should be good to each other because it is the right thing to do in and of itself. Not because such behaviour is divinely approved or because we fear supernatural wrath through breaking the moral code.
Cameron was not utterly wrong to recognise that Christianity, and by extension religion, can be a force for good. Nor, from a purely historical perspective, can he be denied his point about the religion and the King James Bible’s cultural impact, for better or worse. His speech rightly recognises the common phrases and idioms it has bequeathed to the English language. He even recognised the delicious irony that a book sanctioned by the King and Church of England would be used to justify a royal execution and the dismantling of the established church following the English Civil War. But recognising the historical debt of the King James Bible, shouldn’t be confused with relevance.
Whatever the moral malaise we find ourselves currently suffering from, Christianity can no longer be the sole answer. The lifestyle changes, scientific advances and expanded cultural and intellectual horizons of modern life have, unsurprisingly, left a 2,000-year-old book out of step and unable to guide us through the moral maze of our times. It’s time to recognise this basic fact.